ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of personal responsibility for killing civilians and said on Tuesday he would take unspecified steps after Syrian troops shot at refugees inside Turkey.
“He is continuing to kill 60, 70, 80, 100 every day,” Erdogan said of Assad, whom he once called a friend but whose troops were now, the Turkish premier said, “mercilessly” shooting fleeing women and children in the back.
Speaking in China before heading back to the region for talks with Arab power Saudi Arabia, another force pressing for Assad’s removal, Erdogan condemned the shooting on Monday which wounded three Syrians and two Turks in a frontier refugee camp.
“There was a very clear violation of the border. We are going to conduct a final assessment. Our diplomacy is continuing with the regional countries,” he said. “After that, of course, we will take the steps that need to be taken.”
He did not elaborate. Opposition from U.N. Security Council heavyweights Russia and China, as well as from Assad’s long-time backer Iran, argues against military intervention in support of the Syrian rebels by sympathetic regional and Western powers.
But Turkey, which has given refuge to some 25,000 Syrians including officers commanding rebel forces, has indicated it might consider increasing its support for Assad’s opponents, including by declaring a “buffer zone” to protect them.
Erdogan said last month that would mean sending in troops to Syria to secure the area, setting up a possible confrontation between Assad’s forces and the Turkish army, the second biggest in NATO, the North American and European defense bloc.
Erdogan said Assad had already broken a promise to international envoy Kofi Annan to withdraw troops from urban areas by Tuesday to allow for a truce to start on Thursday:
“They are even shooting these fleeing people from behind. They are mercilessly shooting them, regardless of whether they are children or women,” Erdogan said. “Indeed, he gave his word to Mr. Annan, but despite giving his word he is continuing to kill 60, 70, 80, 100 every day. This is the situation.”
As Erdogan’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, broke off his own trip to China to return home, the Turkish foreign ministry also condemned the incident at the Kilis refugee camp and summoned the Syrian charge d‘affaires in Ankara.
Officials said Erdogan would meet King Abdullah in Riyadh on Friday to discuss Syria. Both are sympathetic to pleas for support from fellow Sunni Muslims there. Sunnis are the majority in Syria but complain of oppression by Assad’s Alawites, a sect which aligns itself with the Shi‘ites who dominate in Iran.
A sectarian tinge to the Syrian uprising, which began 13 months ago as part of a wider Arab popular movement for democratic reforms, has heightened wider tensions along a Sunni-Shi‘ite faultline that cuts across the Middle East.
Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper said that, after China and Saudi Arabia, Erdogan might also visit Russia, a key defender of Assad. The Turkish prime minister, bolstered by political and economic stability at home, has been eager to increase the country’s diplomatic clout in the region, and beyond.
Reporting by Jonathon Burch and Tulay Karadeniz; Editing by Alastair Macdonald